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Executive Communications: Big Impressions on Small Audiences

Outside your home, ALL speaking is public speaking.

Recently, I was chatting with a team member of a consulting firm who told me that because his organization focused on innovation, he found that it was absolutely necessary to clearly articulate his ideas. His problem: he often found himself struggling when approached in the hall by the head of another department or a senior executive. For him, it is much easier to speak in front of a large group than to master the "water cooler" vignette. He felt that larger venues allowed time for preparation and added that, "The impromptu meetings really catch you off guard."

As he was spearheading a new department at his firm, he had many new opportunities to make lasting impressions of his business acumen on his colleagues and superiors at the water cooler. He usually walked away from these impromptu meetings wondering if he had left them thinking more about his rambling communication skills than his brilliant ideas. He asked me, "How should I handle these moments appropriately?" This is what I told him:

Outside your home, ALL speaking is public speaking. There is no such thing as private speaking. You're right that many people are less intimidated when they prepare for a speech than when they must communicate off the cuff in a more informal setting. However, conversations on the elevator, or at the water cooler, can do as much to boost your career as giving a formal presentation.

How do you master impromptu meetings and on-the-spot interaction?

  1. Have something to say that is of interest and topical. Keep up with the news, and peruse your corporate report or newsletter regularly. Have two or three relevant things to say at all times. You can even "rehearse" with a trusted friend for those chance encounters with CEOs.
  2. Focus on others. The silver bullet in business and politics is the Like Factor, but it's easy to concentrate so hard on what others are thinking of you, you forget that even VIPs care what others think of them. Know what is going on in your company so you can congratulate people on their achievements or refer to a previous conversation. For example, "How was that trip you took last week?" Your sincere interest in people will make a lasting impression.
  3. Ask questions to start a conversation. A bright but introverted friend of mine has a gregarious wife who often drags him to parties where he doesn't know anyone. He used to sit in a corner with a drink in his hand, inspecting the carpet. Then I showed him the question-asking technique. At the next gathering, he asked the hostess about her work. "I'm an emergency room nurse," she said. "What is your average day like?" he responded. They talked for an hour. As the couple prepared to leave, the hostess told my friend's astonished wife, "Your husband is the most scintillating conversationalist I've ever met." Moral: When you make people feel important, letting them talk about themselves and sharing what they know, you earn a reputation as a brilliant conversationalist, even if you've hardly said a word.
  4. Praise others. For example, be sure to boast about your entire team rather than your own efforts. Say how proud you are of them and offer highlights of their accomplishments. It makes you much more likable, and the unavoidable implication is that you are a good leader.
  5. Overcome shyness. When you find yourself in an elevator with a VIP, forget the power plays and do what would make your mother proud. Be cordial, smile, breathe deeply, and take the initiative. Say, "Good morning Mr./Ms. Big Shot. I don't know if you remember me. I am Patricia Fripp, and I work in the communications department." Then congratulation them on a recent success – a speech, published article, award, or contract. Or mention very briefly an achievement in your department: "Did you hear how we saved the company a quarter of a million dollars?" You've got seconds to connect, so don't try to pin Big Shot down. Perhaps Big Shot will stop to continue the chat when you reach your floor, but more likely you've planted the seeds for future conversation.

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